"Do you pray at all?"
It may as well have come in all caps, the way it landed like an accusation instead of a question. It wasn't the first time I'd received a text from my mother dripping with good ole Christian guilt. The only sin greater than letting God down is allowing your parents to find out your faith walk is no longer patterned after their footsteps.
Her text wasn't about Kendrick Lamar's album, DAMN., per se, but without knowing it she'd just triggered an existential debate I'd been having with myself since its April release. I was in the middle of laying down some definitive thoughts about the LP when the realization hit me. Just like her nagging text, the Compton MC had spent the better half of a year forcing me to reckon with my doubts about the wrath of God.
I've developed a love-hate relationship with DAMN. In some ways I suspect this is the response Lamar set out to provoke. I imagine I'm not alone. In order to have your LP debut at the top of the Billboard 200 chart — then remain in the top 10 for more than 25 consecutive weeks, while racking up double-platinum sales and seven Grammy nominations to boot — all of God's children, or a close approximation, must be listening hard.
Between its chart-topping success and cultural dominance, DAMN. is easily the most celebrated album of the year. It snatched the top spot on NPR Music's list of the best albums of the year by a long shot. It's clearly made for such a time as this — one in which politics and personal accountability are colliding with unprecedented force. The question is whether or not we're grappling with DAMN. -- and being convicted by it — like Lamar no doubt intended.
This is an album that requires much of faithful listeners. It suggests even more about his relationship with his audience, and the ways in which he envisions himself as a prophet more than a pop star. Like a lot of fans, I've found myself meditating over DAMN.'s verses like scripture, dissecting the text forward and backward in search of holy discernment. Lord knows I'm no biblical scholar. Hell, I can't remember the last time I set foot inside a church. (Trust, my mother reminds me of this often.) But Lamar's magnanimous LP has me wrestling with the nature of my supposed cursed existence as a black man in the bowels of Babylon — and the ways in which I may be complicit in it.
Like Ta-Nehisi Coates laying out America's legacy of racial plunder with an atheist's realism, Lamar's faith walk is no cake walk. It often borders on the fatalistic. His futility is echoed across a present-day hip-hop landscape awash in suicide ballads, drug abuse and mental health issues. Steeped in the black prophetic tradition, Lamar is less interested in the glory to come in the sweet by and by. He's also no prosperity pimp, pushing a gospel of good-and-plenty in the here and now. Rather, it's God's judgement, and our collective failings, with which he's most concerned.
Yet, for all the religious overtones in which the Compton native shrouds his fourth studio album, the real revelation of DAMN. is that faith no longer feels adequate enough to sustain America's masquerade. And when a country tosses its moral compass aside, all hell tends to break loose.
What good is a prophet, anyway, unless he's come to level total condemnation?
"As I lead this army, make room for mistakes and depression."
— Kendrick Lamar, "Mortal Man"
The Old Testament is full of prophets trying their damnedest to save the world. More often than not, the first obstacle they must overcome is self: self-doubt, self-loathing, even their personal aversion to self-sacrifice. Moses the deliverer was a murderer with a speech impediment. Noah the ark-builder was a documented drunk. Elijah the resurrector was straight-up suicidal. All were broken vessels, but vessels for their God, nonetheless. Then there was Jeremiah. He suffered depression so badly — likely from carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders — that students of the Bible refer to him as the weeping prophet.
I've recently taken to calling him something else: the patron saint of Kendrick Lamar Duckworth.
Like Kendrick, Jeremiah was pretty prolific in his time. He penned the longest book in the Old Testament, Jeremiah, as well as Kings and Lamentations. Think of them as his three major-label studio LPs, the same number contained in Lamar's TDE/Aftermath/Interscope discography. His most personal LP, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City most easily aligns with Jeremiah's self-titled accounting, while his follow-up and most political album, To Pimp A Butterfly, might be seen as his Book of Kings — Jeremiah's 400-year history of the upheaval of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah.
But DAMN. is Lamar's Lamentations, bleak in tone and temperament, long on suffering and short on hope.
To get a sense of where Lamar is coming from on DAMN., it helps to rewind his previous studio masterpiece, 2015's To Pimp A Butterfly. Juxtapose the cover art of TPAB and DAMN. and the contrast is stark. The former is a jubilant image with Lamar surrounded by his boys from the hood as they stand on the front lawn of the White House, just outside its gates, like shirtless conquerors bearing ravenous grins and fist fulls of cash. It's a portrait of the American Dream, extended to "the least of these," in the Age of Obama. The latter, released just months into Donald Trump's presidency, features a close-up of Lamar alone in a white tee, looking defeated, depressed, possessed. His eyes are hollow and soulless; he resembles a demon with hellish intent.
Our image of prophets today is warped by history. Consider the realities they lived and the messages they espoused in ancient times: They did not bring hope and redemption. They preached apocalyptic visions, full of fire and brimstone, meant to turn the people away from ungodliness. They did not come to praise or worship, but to destroy and rebuild. With a sense of duty that compelled them to speak truth to power, they faced frequent persecution, imprisonment, even death. Prophets rarely won popularity contests, at least not without being beheaded for it later.
Lamar agonized over his own metaphoric beheading in the 12-minute opus "Mortal Man" that concluded To Pimp A Butterfly. It wound up foreshadowing the direction of DAMN., an album that finds his head swollen with temptation and righteous indignation as he calls out false prophets, fights the pull of false gods and holds up a mirror to X-rated America. Mostly, he's fighting a battle within.
That an album as unlikely as this epic conceptual narrative, steeped in Old Testament theology, has emerged as the year's centerpiece speaks to the seemingly troubled state in which we find ourselves. By making a choose-your-own adventure album, with faith and fate hanging in the balance, Kendrick's offered us a way out. It's a morality tale, to be sure, but one in which he grants his listeners free will to determine our own destiny.
"Is it wickedness? Is it weakness? You decide," producer and DAMN. contributor Bekon sings in a ghostly voice at the album's outset. "Are we gonna live or die?"
Like the prophets of old, Lamar uses a range of rhetorical devices to convey the urgency of his message. His lessons come steeped in allegory, hyperbole and metaphor. Above all, he uses himself. Just as Jeremiah once bore the yoke of an ox in public to illustrate the impending yoke that God would allow Babylon to place on his chosen people, Lamar spends the majority of the album alternating between protagonist and antagonist in a psychodrama of his own undoing.
The Old Testament is packed with stories of God's chosen people cyclically falling out of favor with the Lord, only to be defeated by their enemies, thrown into slavery and forced to worship foreign gods as divine retribution. It's a narrative that bears more in common with the Transatlantic Slave Trade than coincidence.
For too many centuries in this country, black Americans couldn't afford to harbor doubt. When the powers that be are whip crackers, a relationship with a higher power is not optional. It's bare necessity. Like an old patch quilt, Christianity got handed down from one generation to the next. If it was good enough to get your great-great grandparents through slavery, it was good enough for you. And so the logic went, even though our ancestors were legally prohibited from learning to read the biblical text white evangelicals used to justify their enslavement.
Kendrick Lamar's focus on God's heavy-handed judgement comes straight out of that same biblical bag historically used to oppress African-Americans on these shores. Which begs the question, what does it mean when your liberation tool, the key to your spiritual redemption, is the same tool your oppressors wielded to marginalize you for hundreds of years?
It's a trick bag, no doubt, one that black America has wrestled with since pre-emancipation. Even as the black church became the primary site for progressive political leadership in the late-19th and 20th centuries, we found ourselves othered and outcasted within the scope of our own theological worldview. More than anything, it highlights the absence of a westernized framework, or cosmology, to center the black experience. So we learned to adopt and adapt, taking old models and reclaiming them as our own.
Herein lies the appeal of the Hebrew Israelites, the black nationality Lamar lyrically aligns himself with on DAMN. "I'm an Israelite / Don't call me black no mo' / That word is only a color / It ain't fact no mo'," he raps on "YAH." — a double-entendre of an exultation meant to simultaneously evoke Yahweh, the ancient Hebrew name of God. Dating as far back as the early 1900s, the Hebrew Israelites have proclaimed themselves direct descendants of the 10 lost tribes of ancient Israel. "We are a cursed people," Lamar's cousin, Carl Duckworth, says on the album via voicemail. "Until you come back to these commandments ... we're gonna be under this curse because He said He's gonna punish us — the so-called blacks, Hispanics and Native American Indians are the true children of Israel."
Like Black Liberation Theology before it — which rejected the image of a white European Jesus and remodeled Christianity under a black power rubric — Hebrew Israelites center black folks within the biblical lineage. But, ironically, being God's chosen people in this context also means being cursed, which puts African-Americans back in the same position where the old Christian enslavers once relegated us.
When it comes to the Judeo-Christian tradition, black folks are literally damned if we do and damned if we don't.
It's part of what makes listening to DAMN. a somewhat agonizing, if enlightening, experience: Are we damned by our existence in America? Or are we damned by our reliance on a theology that paints us a cursed people? Is it the inherent wickedness of America's racialized politics or our weakness as a people that we must overcome? Or is our faith predicated on a false binary that only feels like free will while leaving us judged by our nation and cursed by our God?
While Lamar makes clear that he's "not 'bout a religion" on "YAH.," his conceptualization of God reflects a western dichotomy that prizes good over evil. What if the very thing he's relying on for salvation is the thing that's killing him?
More than anything, I hear him searching throughout this album for answers. Maybe he realizes the faith he's been armed with is inadequate to quell his fatalistic urges. Like the protoypical Old Testament prophet, he's a tortured soul. When he wails out, "Ain't nobody praying for me," he sounds like a modern-day Jeremiah, pleading on behalf of his people, "Is there no balm in Gilead?"
If suffering for the sake of our sins is Lamar's cross to bear, then the personal truly is political. In that, he's not alone. Whether your beliefs are being assailed or your very being, we live in a time of increased domestic extremism, with many paying the back taxes on America's transgressions. Like the mythological Garden of Eden, the origins of our nation are wrought in a self-deception so deep that strange fruit, it seems, is our destiny to bear.
Interpreting an artist's intentions is always a tricky thing. But I don't think Kendrick's hung himself out to dry for his sake alone. He's dying for us to grapple with DAMN., in the same gut-wrenching way he has.
The best exegeses of DAMN. have come not from elite publications with access to Lamar, but from hip-hop blogs with dedicated writers obsessive enough to keep turning the album over in their heads — figuratively and literally.
Two weeks after the LP dropped, Lamar penned a response to an essay written by DJBooth.net scribe Miguelito, who drew a sharp distinction between Lamar's heavily-burdened displays of his Christian faith in comparison to the praise-and-uplift put forth by mainstream peer Chance the Rapper. In an email thanking the site for its "accuracy" and "respect for the culture," Kendrick summarized the profound distinction between New Testament redemption and his Old Testament-rooted discipleship: "I feel it's my calling to share the joy of God, but with exclamation, more so, the FEAR OF GOD," he wrote. "The balance. Knowing the power in what he can build, and also what he can destroy. At any given moment."
It was Ambrosia For Heads writer Parfit who decoded the duality of DAMN. upon discovering it to be two albums in one if played backwards from finish to start. After Parfit wrote about it in April — debunking the short-lived theory that Lamar had planned to release a second album titled NATION. on Easter Sunday to bookend the Good Friday release of DAMN. — Lamar went on to confirm the double-play concept four months later in an interview with MTV News.
"You listen from the back end, and it's almost the duality and the contrast of the intricate Kendrick Lamar," he said. "Both of these pieces are who I am." Last week, Lamar's label released DAMN. Collector's Edition., with the tracklist reversed.
Played from beginning-to-end, DAMN. is introduced with an allegory of a blind woman Lamar approaches to offer help finding something she's lost. The woman — presumably, Lady Justice — proceeds to take his life with the bang of a gun that resembles the sound of a gavel. It also feels symbolic of the sacrifice one makes upon accepting a calling to give one's life to God. Kendrick follows that intro ("Blood") with the Mike WiLL Made-It-produced "DNA.," on which he goes on a lyrical warpath, taking personal inventory of his heritage of human contradiction.
"I know murder, conviction, burners, boosters / burglars, ballers dead, redemption / scholars, fathers dead with kids / and I wish I was fed forgiveness," he raps.
The internal battle continues with the album counting the wages of sin and sacrifice, as Lamar vacillates, track-by-track, between vanity and humility, lust and love, vengeance and peace. "I'm willin' to die for this s***/ I done cried for this s***, might take a life for this s***," he raps, reveling in his "Element." "Put the Bible down and go eye for an eye for this s***." "Feel" finds a self-absorbed, egotistical Kendrick bemoaning the fact that "the whole world want me to pray for 'em / but ain't nobody praying for me," while the climactic "Fear" features Lamar's cousin Carl Duckworth quoting Deuteronomy to explain the generational curse that's given him "that chip on [his] shoulder." But Lamar is unearthing more than his personal fears here. His struggles serve as proxy for the human condition, a mirror image of America's own dark soul. "But is America honest or do we bask in sin? / Pass the gin, I mix it with American blood / Then bash him in, you crippin' or you married to blood?" he raps on "XXX."
DAMN. resolves itself with "Duckworth," the autobiographical parable in which he illustrates how his own destiny, that of the "greatest rapper," stems from his father (Kenny "Ducky" Duckworth) and TDE label founder (Anthony "Top Dawg" Tiffith) exercising free will many years ago to avoid a tragic fate for all three. Through karmic law, they overcome wickedness.
But that's only one side of the story. On the reverse listen the narrative subtly switches from insufferable but gradual enlightenment to one that seems to devolve deeper into frustration and spiritual degradation over the course of the 14 tracks. In this opposite playback sequence, Lamar succumbs to his weakest emotions and base character traits before meeting the same fate that started the original listen.
Most prophets die misunderstood, their pronouncements discarded by the rulers of the day and their followers, only to be paid credence in hindsight. That DAMN. has garnered the fanaticism to warrant a re-release, despite the only difference from the original being a reversed tracklist, speaks to the degree to which his message is being heard. Whether we, as individuals, a people and a nation, are prepared to take heed remains to be seen.
"I'm not a politician. I'm not 'bout a religion."
— Kendrick Lamar, "YAH."
Despite the album's biblical context and the Christian faith that has long been explicit in Lamar's work, his relationship with the church sounds about as testy as mine. Just listen to him recount a service he attended in his April letter to DJBooth.net: "I went to a local church some time ago, and it appalled me that the same program was in practice. A program that I seen as a kid the few times I was in service. Praise, dance. Worship. (Which is beautiful.) Pastor spewing the idea of someone's season is approaching. The idea of hope. So on and so forth.
"As a child, I always felt this Sermon had an emptiness about it," he continues. "Kinda one sided, in what I felt in my heart. Fast forward. After being heavily in my studies these past few years, I've finally figured out why I left those services feeling spiritually unsatisfied as a child. I discovered more truth. But simple truth. Our God is a loving God. Yes. He's a merciful God. Yes. But he's even more so a God of DISCIPLE. [sic] OBEDIENCE. A JEALOUS God. And for every conscious choice of sin, will be corrected through his discipline."
I find it hard to believe in a God who would create me and curse me in the same breath. Even Pope Francis recently advised overhauling the Lord's Prayer so it no longer reads in a way that suggests God's the one who leads us into temptation. "A father does not do this," the pope explained in Italian. "A father quickly helps those who are provoked into Satan's temptation."
Our concept of the divine is a reflection of how we see ourselves. And it makes sense that black America, despite being the moral compass in the country, still feels the weight of a cursed fate. But I also hear DAMN. as Lamar's revelation that evil is not something that only exists outside of us. The same way we proclaim ourselves gods, in the metaphysical sense, we are inhabitants of the darkness. So maybe it's as important to confront the evil and the fear within.
From the birth of the Old Negro Spiritual, black America has crafted hymns to get over the confounding hardships of this world. Lamar complements that tradition, but he also complicates it. DAMN. embodies a year in which hip-hop — and America at large — finds itself wrestling in public with its inner demons. He could've made another Black Lives Matter anthem like "Alright" to quell our fears. Instead he held true to his prophetic vision and laid his vulnerabilities on the line.
He's shown how hard it is to hold one's self accountable to God's word, and how challenging it is for America to hold herself to her own.
In fact, his prophecy is being echoed in some pretty high, if surprising, places as of late: "I don't think President Trump has a fear of the Lord, the fear of the wrath of God, which leads one to more humility," California Governor Jerry Brown said last Sunday on 60 Minutes. The governor of Lamar's home state was commenting on the president's position on climate change, as his state experiences its most destructive fire season on record. "This is such a reckless disregard for the truth and for the existential consequences that can be unleashed."
I'd missed 60 Minutes myself and probably wouldn't have heard anything about Brown's statement, save for an unexpected text I got late Sunday night. "He said Trump has got to wake up," my mom added, likely proud of herself for having found a way to sneak some God talk into the politics of the day. But it was obvious whose wake up call she was really praying for. It was such a perfect ending, I couldn't even be mad.